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Ever wondered why Vodafone’s ad campaigns featuring the Zoo zoo creatures have become an international sensation or why did a fusion of Tamil-English lyrics #WhythisKolaveriDi spread like a fire through social networking sites or why an idea for a public safety video “Dumb ways to die” was a hit around the world.

It’s interesting to ponder, why some things catch on and others fall flat.

The probable reason of certain products, services or ideas getting widely shared and taking off could be they are simply better; they have the best deal; or it’s the hefty advertising budgets. Having said that, some ideas still fail to achieve widespread acceptance despite clearing all the above stated parameters. Then, what’s the secret of making something immensely big and well known. Also why do people share something that seems so useless over and over? Why do you hear the same story from multiple people? What makes you click that share button?

Well, if you think it’s only advertising – it’s a big no. The secret of making something infectious is social transmission i.e. word of mouth. Ideas and products become popular because people chose to tell their friends about them.

Jonah Berger, who teaches marketing at Wharton, has thought about this question, and has conducted an extensive/ exhaustive research mapping out the path to Viral Fame.

In his celebrated book, Contagious, Berger reveals:

Virality is not random,

Virality is not luck,

Virality is not a magic.

But behind every viral video, and behind every piece of social transmission there is science. And in order for something to become popular and spread effectively, especially socially or through word of mouth, people have the want to share it, and as it turns out there are a handful of common attributes that highly popular things have in common that induce people to share them with others. These attributes, to varying degrees, are what make something contagious. His book discovers how six basic principles named “STEPPS” drive all sorts of things to become contagious, from consumer products and policy initiatives to services and ideas within organizations.

STEPPS stands for: Social Currency, Triggers, Emotion, Public, Practical Value, and Stories. Berger devotes a chapter to each category he has identified.

The Six Things You Need to Know to Make Your Voice Heard is:  

Social Currency- Sharing is all about minting social currency. If you want your product or idea to be shared, you should craft it in a manner that creates social currency for people by making it somehow remarkable. Another strategy to generate social currency is through game dynamics: by letting people earn stuff to brag about, you help them create social capital within their circles. Finally, everyone loves a secret: you crate social currency if you give people the feeling that they are cool insiders. Once you have them talking, you want them to keep on talking rather than to forget and to move on. That is why; we forward that quirky news item in an email. We tell our friend about the cool new restaurant that opened up downtown. Sharing like this makes us feel good about ourselves, and contributes to a sense of participation in, and of belonging to a community.

Triggers - What is it that drives people to continue to talk about certain things more than others?  What generated continuous word of mouth was whether the idea was “top of mind,” and easily recalled, especially when it was reinforced via a trigger. Trigger is a kind of environmental cue that drives us to remember thing that are related. For instance, Budweiser’s “Wassup” commercials used this common greeting to drive beer sales. Effective triggers cause things to remain top of mind and drive continued conversations.

Emotion - It seems pretty obvious that in order to become viral, content needs to evoke an emotional response. The question, however, is asking what kind of emotion motivates people to share something with others. Users share a great deal of content online largely because their sharing habits are driven by emotion. This is indexed on VAD scale valence, arousal and dominance.  Valence refers to positive and negative affectivity, arousal relates to how calming or exciting the information is, and dominance relates to how in control a user feels when presented with the information. A product or idea that generates emotional arousal, especially awe or anger, is more likely to be shared with others. What suggests this is that if we want our communications to be more likely to spread or go viral, we need to provoke an emotional, preferably physiological reaction.

Public - This factor is based on the “Monkey see, monkey do” complex. Hungry customers will judge a restaurant’s quality by how many people they see inside as they walk by. Those that are in the market for a new car are more likely to buy a certain model if many others in their geographic region already drive it (interestingly enough, this is mostly true for areas that have “high visibility.” Low visibility areas include mass transit urban centers like New York, or even regions that see more rain than others, such as Seattle.) Movember has seen tremendous success in raising awareness for prostate cancer because of the sheer amount of mustaches that suddenly appear each November. Making things more public makes them easier to imitate. Such products or initiatives are successful at advertising themselves and creating behavioral residue that sticks around.

Practical Value - “People like to help others, so if we can show them how our products or ideas will save time, improve health, or save money, they’ll spread the word”. A few years back, a woman recorded a short video of her eighty-six year old father explaining how he microwaves ears of corn in such a way that ensures that no corn silk is left on the cob. The video went viral and collected more than 5 million views. It was a simple, useful video. 
Reason we are likely to share things is when they have practical value, and are applicable to our daily lives. We naturally want to help others, and when we see an idea that can make life easier for others, for instance by saving time or money for them, we tend to share it.

Stories - Humans crave stories, since stories provide us with a deeper understanding of our world. And stories can contain embedded meaning and messages. Berger suggests that, in order to create an effective communication that will spread, we build a story that has the elements of a Trojan horse. That is, a story should have features which are part of the telling that convey our intended message. He provides the example of Subway’s Jared Fogle, who lost 245 pounds eating Subway sandwiches. Losing the weight is a news item itself, but the fact that he did so while eating only Subway products is extraordinary.

What I personally like about the book…

Contagious combines groundbreaking research with powerful stories. However it seems like a conceit at the outset, with a claim of knowing about something that seems actually be the result of random forces, but as the book sweeps along, the case for specificity is solidified.

It is at its most engaging when Mr. Berger is looking at specific case studies. He writes that Steve Jobs debated whether the Apple logo on the cover of an open laptop should be right-side up for the user of the computer or right-side up to onlookers, and eventually decided that “observability” to the world was more important and “flipped the logo.” He notes that distinctiveness makes for products that advertise themselves — whether it’s clothing logos (like Nike’s swoosh, Lacoste’s crocodile or Ralph Lauren’s polo player); the distinctive tubular Pringles can; or Christian Louboutin’s nail-polish-bright, red-soled shoes.